New Yorker Raises and Trains Puppies to be Future Service Dogs

Daily Point of Light # 7773 Mar 21, 2024

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Jacquelyn Penn. Read her story, and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

When Jacquelyn Penn was a student at the University of Maryland, she started seeing puppies and dogs around campus in yellow vests and instantly wanted to be a part of whatever club it was. Little did she know that the sister organizations in charge of the dogs — The Guide Dog Foundation and America’s VetDogs — would turn into years of joy-filled volunteerism.

Penn became a puppy raiser for the organizations in 2020 and helps teach service dogs to become dogs that help with guiding people in need, scent detection, PTSD and more. She’s successfully raised four dogs since becoming a volunteer and grew to be an area coordinator in New York City and a PTSD skills mentor.

“Not only do I get to enrich my own life with the presence of an amazing dog, but I know that the work I do with these pups will go on to be life changing for the future handler,” said Penn.

What inspires you to volunteer?

I found out about the Guide Dog Foundation when I was a freshman in college. There are actually regional chapters throughout the country, and because of the chapter that was at my college I started seeing a lot of dogs in little yellow vests walking around campus. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I have to do that, it seems amazing and I love dogs.” This felt like a volunteerism loophole; to have a dog in college. With a service dog, I don’t have to feel guilty about leaving it at home all day and instead it can come with me. I don’t have to pay its vet bills— it is like the perfect loophole for me.

I didn’t think I could commit to taking a dog full time, maybe I’ll just be a sitter for the organization and babysit the dogs. So, I started off on that path and I quickly realized that it wasn’t enough for me, I felt like I needed to make a connection with the dog; I needed to have my own dog and bring it into my home, not someone else’s dog for a few hours. So, after about three or four months of being a sitter, I quickly shifted and then after a little bit of extra training and requirements, I got on the list to receive a dog in January of 2020 with the Guide Dog Foundation. I got my first dog, Rudy, at the end of January, and I raised him for about a month and a half before the COVID-19 pandemic started. Even though we had COVID-19 restrictions, my co-guide and I were able to find a way to split the time with Rudy. So, I had him back in the summer and then at the end of the summer, he actually ended up leaving and went to do formal training with a Texas agency. So, I from there, I jumped right back in, and I raised another dog in the PTSD curriculum, which is a bit more involved. I just fell in love with teaching curriculum.

This past year, I raised my fourth dog. So, it’s that kind of thing where once you get started and realize how much you love it, you can’t stop.

Tell us about your volunteer role with the Guide Dog Foundation and America’s VetDogs?

One of the best parts about having these dogs is that they’re service dogs and they can go places with you. It almost motivates you to go out and explore the city that you’re in more because you’re looking at everything through them. So, through this volunteerism, I would go to museums, exhibits and did more experiences, because I was thinking about how my dog would respond in a specific situation or how to socialize them. You have to take things slow and be really patient because—especially in New York City—it can be a very overwhelming place for a dog.

23-year-old Jacquelyn raises service dogs for the Guide Dog Foundation and America’s VetDogs, teaching them to become dogs that help with guiding people in need, scent detection, PTSD and more.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

When the dogs get to meet their forever person. My second dog was placed as a PTSD service dog, and I had the honor of meeting his first responder that he was partnered with. That just felt like such a full circle moment. You’re raising these dogs for a greater purpose, but it still sucks when they leave, and it hurts. That’s a piece of your heart and you’re sending it away and you don’t know when you’re going to see them again or if you’re going to see them again. But I love getting to meet the person that he was trained for and see how good of a match they were. It was just like a closure for me.

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

Well, aside from the obvious dog training, I think I really learned that it’s okay to give up a big part of your heart for a greater purpose. I’ve never experienced something like that where, like a baby, you get the dog at eight weeks old, and they live with you and you see them through every up and down. While they’re growing up, you get to see every bit of their personality and schedule, like what makes their tail wag.

And sometimes you give them away, and that was really hard for me the first time. It only gets harder. I also tend to get a little closed off in my emotions, and being part of this guide dog community, you learn that it’s okay and that you’re allowed to feel all of these emotions of joy and sadness and that you can live to be proud that you’re doing this for a purpose.

Any advice for people who want to start volunteering?

Sometimes it can feel intimidating to get involved in a cause, especially one that makes you be a little bit more selfless and maybe give up a big part of yourself. With the Guide Dog Foundation, I devoted so much time, like a year of training a dog and giving it away. It can be intimidating to enter that realm, but it’s worth it. And if it’s a cause that you care about and you have the passion for it and your hearts in the right place, then it will be worth it.

What do you want people to learn from your story?

I definitely would love for them to learn more about the Guide Dog Foundation, I think that the mission is amazing. And if you’re a dog lover like myself, the bottom line is it’s more than a volunteerism loophole—it’s going to end up being so much more than that.

Tell us about future partnerships, programs or events that you are excited about.

My most recent trainee, Nadia, is currently in formal training, and I’m hoping for a graduation soon. So, in the next few months or so I could be hearing about her timeline for graduation finding her forever person. It’s a massive thing on the horizon for her, and I’m so excited.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Jacquelyn? Find local volunteer opportunities.


Madi Donham